Could this happen to you? Is your organization vulnerable to being hijacked? Perhaps not, but many are. Read on for tips on how to prevent losing your organization to "them."
Things were going so well - or so it seemed! Your advocacy group was building strategic alliances with representatives from the industry you hoped to reform. They were very cooperative, and they had been contributing money, expertise and time. Several even volunteered to serve on your board. "They" were in the minority, so there was no chance of hanky-panky, right? You and your board were giddy with the unprecedented levels of cooperation. The annual meeting for your nonprofit membership corporation was approaching, and new members were signing up daily. Life was good - or so you thought!
Meeting day. You arrived bright and early. Coffee and donuts ready? Check. Handouts? All set. Flip charts in place? Yup. You publicized the meeting in the newsletter as mandated in the bylaws. Everyone was invited, but you didn't expect anyone other than the board to show. They never do. A couple of board members wouldn't make it either. One was sick and the other was on vacation.
Your board starts to trickle in. As you schmooze the board chair, several strangers stroll in. Interesting. You introduce yourself - turns out they're some of those new members. How nice! Then more strangers - and more. Soon the meeting room is packed with people you don't know. You're not sure why, but all of a sudden you don't feel so good.
As the meeting gets underway, your fears subside. The new members are attentive, ask thoughtful questions, and behave respectfully while the board conducts its routine business. Then it's time for annual elections. Like any other year, the slate is set - just the "usual suspects" and two new candidates recommended by the nominating committee. Unexpectedly, one of those new members raises his hand. An obscure clause in your bylaws allow for nominations from the floor. Your heart sinks - you know what's coming. In mere seconds it's all over but the crying. The core of your board is depleted by the two absences. You hold only 5 mail proxies. There are 50 new members in attendance, and they're all close friends of your two token board members from the industry you had hoped to reform. You've just been hijacked!
Far fetched? I've witnessed it. Implausible? I know of national and state organizations that have been dismantled with simpler tactics. Can't happen to us? Consider this. If you're organization is advocating for tighter regulations, more responsible corporate behavior, higher safety standards, cleaner manufacturing methods, removal of dangerous products from the market or any of thousands of missions that impact big business, remember that the stakes can be extremely high. In some cases your lofty mission might cost "them" millions of dollars. But money isn't the only motive. Ideological differences could lead opponents to employ similar infiltration and overthrow tactics.
And overthrow isn't necessary to bring down an organization. Organizations can quickly become mired in dysfunction if they are infiltrated by board members who are bent on disruption. Frustration, disillusionment, and stalemate can bring an organization to its knees. Board members who "know where the skeletons are buried" can employ whistle- blower tactics to bring on a distracting IRS audit or scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission, OSHA, EEOC or the state sales tax unit. You did collect sales taxes on all twenty copies of that book you resold, didn't you? By the time the mayhem subsides, regardless of the outcome, regardless of how clean your books are, many of your trusted board members will have jumped ship. "They" won't, of course, which will leave "them" in control.
OK, you're convinced. How do you prevent this? Paranoia isn't necessary or useful. Good, common- sense practices will serve you well. The first line of defense is a solid set of bylaws, policies and procedures. Reinforce that with a healthy respect for your opponents. Make no mistake. If you're in the advocacy business, you have opponents or you wouldn't exist in the first place. Expect "them" to be talented and ingenious. Expect "them" to do their jobs well. You have the ability to manage this well by having a healthy respect for what you are up against and keeping the balance of decision-making power for your organization within your control.
CommUlinks can provide comprehensive anti-hijacking analysis and consulting services. We will examine every part of your organization's structure, bylaws, policies and procedures, identify your Achilles' Heel (s), and help you bolster your fortifications against an outright assault or a Trojan Horse.
Ten Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Organization
But Only if You Want to Survive
Self-evaluation is the key to success for organizations of any size and for any mission. The truth is that many organizations exist in order to put themselves out of business. While some organizations have a sustaining mission, others are here to attack the root causes of a problem and solve it. Some organizations, such as the March of Dimes, fulfill their original mission (to find a cure for polio), and, once they "arrive," they must decide what they should do with the tremendous support systems they created and how their accumulated experience and skills apply to other problems. No matter how long your organization has existed, you should ask yourself the following questions in order to sustain momentum, long-term funding and achieve your mission. If your organization is new, these questions will help you to develop your plan of action:
How will we know when we have arrived? For some organizations, the answer is simple. The people they serve are no longer suffering, the problem is solved, the laws have been changed. In other words, the issue is no longer an issue. For others, however, it's not as clear-cut. For those with a perpetual mission - museums, hospitals, human services organizations and others - it's more a matter of doing a superb job and satisfying needs. But for some organizations, the ones that are not organized around a concrete concept, the answer may be elusive. Read our article, When Visions Don't Manifest, for more information. If you are not able to answer this question, you may have some work to do to make your goals more concrete, more focused and, sometimes, more expansive.
Why is our organization (still) needed? Are you making reasonable progress toward your goals? Does the quality and quantity of your achievements justify donors' investments? Donors - and the IRS - expect that your organization will contribute to solving a problem.
What other organizations are doing this work? Surprisingly, some new organizations don't assess this before applying for their 501 (c) (3). Established organizations frequently overlook the need to learn about other organizations that may be doing the same work for the same population. This is especially vital information, because it is a warning flag. Someone obviously believes that your mission is not being adequately fulfilled.
Who are our anti-organizations? Before you launch that new PR campaign, do you know who will come out against you? Do you know everything you need to know about the "other side?" Find those organizations and, if possible, use a clipping service or work with volunteers to follow all media and other information about them. Google! Don't underestimate your opponents. Understand their views and prepare your PR message to anticipate and counter their attacks.
Is our name branded? Is it easy to tell who we are and what we do by our name? Your brand is your organization's identity. Does it do the job? Avoid using acronyms. They may be easy, but people usually can't figure out what the letters stand for, so your brand is lost. When choosing a brand, abbreviation is inevitable. Choose your own one-word abbreviation - one that maintains meaning. If you don't, someone will do it for you, and you may not appreciate their choice. Also beware of your name becoming outdated or politically incorrect. The exception to the acronym rule is that some very well established organizations, that have strong brand identity, have been forced to change their official names to their acronyms to avoid a name change.
Why do people donate to our organization? What's in it for them? Do we articulate that? The key to individual donations is being able to articulate, in 30 seconds or less, why donors should give to your organization. The best resource to develop this message is donors themselves.
Has our focus changed? Does your work still match your mission? When you write your goals and objectives, do they reflect the major mission of the organization?
Does everyone in our organization know our mission? A good test is can everyone in your organization should be able to state your mission as if they were doing an interview with the media? "The mission of our organization is - -" If each person can't do that, it's time to educate. It may also be time to reexamine the mission statement. Is it too long or wordy? Try it out on each other. Does it flow? Can everyone get all of the words out in the right order? Does it clearly state what your organization's programs hope to accomplish? The answer should be in your mission statement. But please don't spend weeks wordsmithing.
What are our long-term funding strategies? If you've ever written a grant, you know this question is included. While it is great to say you plan to diversify your funding sources, exactly how are you doing that? How many different funding streams have you investigated and pursued? If you receive a great deal of funding and interest for a program in a new area, how will you sustain that program once the seed money is gone?
How do we measure success? Simply saying you measure the number of people you serve is not enough. What changes do you expect to see in those people? If you're organization is not people-focused, can you describe the incremental changes and successes you are hoping to accomplish?
When Visions Don't Manifest
Money Doesn't Come In our business, we often meet visionary people. You can easily spot a visionary. When they speak, you can see the sugar plum fairies dancing in their heads, but only for a split second, because it's impossible to keep up with them. They leap from one disconnected thought to another, and they are frustrated when others "don't get it." They are frequently the founders of your organization. Every organization needs visionaries, but not a whole board full of visionaries. Organizations need concrete implementers who can interpret the vision and translate into reality. Sometimes, if the visionaries and emotion-based decision making have too much control over the organization, it can be difficult to implement the practical steps required to make that vision manifest. Unless you are able to offer foundations and donors a concrete solution - one that benefits large numbers of people or entire communities, will educate people about the issue, positively impact an at-risk population, or solve a well-documented problem, and one that employs proven, respected methods - funding may be difficult to find. You may have to make hard choices in order to accomplish your mission. Strategies for success:
Build broad support through education and advocacy;
Diversify your strategies to ensure that your mission gets the attention it deserves;
Contribute to solving a larger problem as a primary goal;
Overcome obstacles before you focus on the main goal;
Collaborate with organizations doing compatible work;
Convince your core constituents that they are served by the larger goals.
Your organization visionaries may lead you astray at times, sending you off to pursue an undefined goal. The visionary may not be wrong. He or she may actually be able to see the end result in his or her own mind, but may not know how to get there. In the mean time, you can waste time and resources and squander your organization's credibility while trying to understand what they or your constituents want from you. You want to get there. It is never too late to attend to these issues to make sure your organization achieves success.